A nuclear bomb is not a dirty bomb
I’M not sure here whether it’s the Mail getting things mixed up or whether we’ve actually got a government minister getting mixed up. The likelihood of either is so high that who is able to tell?
A dirty bomb attack is a ‘real threat’ faced by Britain, the Foreign Office will warn today. The government claims nuclear terrorism is still one of the biggest threats to global peace. Minister Alistair Burt will use a speech to warn of the dangers posed by a rise nuclear weapons being smuggled around the world.
The point being that there’s a huge difference between a nuclear bomb and a dirty bomb.
A nuclear bomb is when you get a fission (or fusion) reaction. The uranium, plutonium, (or in fusion, the hydrogen) converts into another element. And according to that good old E equals MC squared there’s a vast amount of energy coming out of it. Plus all sorts of nasty particles and radioactive isotopes. This would be very bad.
A dirty bomb is something else entirely. It’s a normal explosion. You could do it with fertiliser and derv, as the IRA used to. Or any other explosive that you can find. Then add something radioactive. Say, cobalt 60 (a radioactive isotope of cobalt) from a cancer treatment or food irradiation machine. Or americium from a fire alarm. Someone actually plotted to do that second one not realising the next thing I’m about to tell you. This would not be a very bad thing. In fact, we’d pretty much not notice the radioactive part of it. Oh, there’d be a few numpties who panicked for sure, but the actual effect of a dirty bomb going off would be, over and above the bang, around and about zero.
Because radiation is really only a problem if it is concentrated. And the whole point of putting it into a bomb would be to disperse it: rather defeating the whole object of the exercise as dispersed radiation is something we’re all subject to every moment of every day.
A dirty bomb is trivially easy to make but isn’t actually worth making. A nuclear bomb is also easy to make: if you’ve got the right metals. And making those right metals ain’t easy: as Iran is proving, they’ve spent more than a decade with all the resources of an oil rich nation state and still haven’t quite got there.
As to the smuggling of nuclear weapons: there’s not been one single recorded incident of this happening, anywhere, ever. There’s been governments smuggling the designs for such weapons around, that’s for sure. And there’s been odd types moving a gramme or two of uranium around but they almost always seem to be, on close examination, set ups by the security services. There’s even been odd bits of radioactive scrap found in scrap yards (one piece of medical technology containing caesium in a yard in Brazil killed several people if I remember correctly). But note what’s happening here: the dirty bomb stuff is easy but useless and the nuclear bomb stuff just ain’t happening except by governments. And governments know exactly what would happen if they set one off: their entire country would be a glazed parking lot some 45 minutes later.